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February 28, 2013 | 12:00 a.m. CST
Rejection letter writers rarely get fan mail. This isn’t the case for True/False, where responses from snubbed filmmakers go something like this:
“Thanks for the sweetest and most sensitive rejection we have ever received.”
“The nicest rejection letter ever! So nice that I am going to save it in the folder with the articles and the appreciation letters that I received for this film.”
“It’s never fun to get these letters and much less when they are boilerplate factory letters, so thanks for going that extra step, it really sets True/False apart and boosts your already fab reputation.”
While True/False rejects large numbers of docs every year, it makes a special effort to assure filmmakers that the films are worthwhile and actually viewed, not carelessly tossed aside.
The submissions director is the bad-news bearer responsible for sending out rejections. This year it’s Chris Boeckmann. Each letter contains a few lines dedicated to something positive and specific to the rejected doc.
This is encouraging proof for the filmmakers that their documentary was actually viewed during the submission process. Although it might save time to send a mass generic letter like many other festivals, that’s hardly the True/False style. “I think filmmakers are discouraged by the film festival circuit,” says Boeckmann. “Because of that form letter, they think that film festivals don’t even watch their films.”
Filmmaker Mark Wojahn submitted his documentary Trampoline in 2010. It took six years to create. The film didn’t make it into True/False, but the rejection was different than his past experiences with film festivals. “Even though they were turning the film down, they did so in a gracious way,” Wojahn says. The letter contained a basic summary of the film, which set it apart from other blanket letters he had received. “It felt like they cared a little bit,” he says. “Maybe at True/False, one or both of their directors are telling their programming committee that they want to give their filmmakers a fair shake.”
David Friesen was submissions director until 2011. For three years, the rejection letter writing was his gig. After his first year doing the job, the level of positive feedback surprised him. “The thing that stood out to me is how uncommon it is and how refreshing it is for [filmmakers] to receive these emails,” Friesen says. “Taking the time to do that makes a big difference.”
The goal behind the personal responses is to build a sense of community. “It goes with the central mission of True/False: to be a community of filmmakers,” Friesen says. David Wilson and Paul Sturtz, the fest’s co-conspirators, have worked on documentary projects of their own, something Friesen says gives them an understanding of both sides of the festival. “We didn’t want to make it a contest,” says Friesen. “We just wanted to say these were all fantastic films by brilliant filmmakers.